Video on “Chinese Dream”

video produced by CCTV, featuring Daniel Bell, Zhang Xudong. M.D. Nalapat, Einar Tangen, Tu Weiming, and Zhang Jianfei, Mayor of Changsha at the Yuelu Academy in Changsha. (Stick with it: I feel that it gets more interesting as it goes along.) Comments welcome.

9 replies on “Video on “Chinese Dream””

  1. Starting at 26:21

    Those young students [I miss any antecedent] would say, Hey, Americans – and including many Americans, they would be proud of exporting values, instead of cheap low value-added products from China to the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Now, is that true, that China is only able to export low value-added exports to the US, at the cost of environmental conditions? Is that true, that in our culture, in our history, we don’t have concepts and virtues that we should be proud of?

    Tu Weiming:
    We do have core values that are rooted in the Chinese experience. They can be universalized; Americans should embrace them. Freedom, as a value, without justice, cannot be a truly universal value. Rationality without sympathy or empathy or compassion, or legality without civility, or dignity of the individual without social harmony, or the idea of rights without responsibilities.

    I really like almost everything else Tu says in the discussion, but here he seems to intend to suggest that justice, compassion, civility, social harmony, and responsibility are values held in China but not so much in America: values China can reasonably aim to export to America. Is this suggestion correct?

    • I completely agree with you, Bill! Both that overall Tu is terrific in this video, and that he’s way too crude in the bit that you cite. I do think that there is something to what he says here–that we in the US may think too little about what Tu refers to as “civility,” for example — but really making out what it is we might learn is a subtle and complex business.

    • Bill – granted, your question is worth discussing, but less so if the important Harvard scholar is not in fact championing the view you’re questioning. And haven’t you perhaps mistaken the point of his remark?

      Remember the forum: what he can say here is constrained. And he is a man of many public discussions: the remark may be designed for repeated use, even in discussions that are in Chinese and so more narrowly constrained. His point may simply be to lay before the audience, for their contemplation, the idea of all these values, these pairings; and in that way suggest that each value in each pair ought to be supplemented by the other. That is, the point may simply be to present the combinations for contemplation; what is said about them may be secondary, simply a vehicle to get the picture painted.

      People use such devices. Think of the last line of Meng Haoran’s “Spring Dawn” –

      春眠不覺曉 Spring asleep not perceive dawn
      處處聞啼鳥 Everywhere hear twitter birds
      夜來風雨聲 Night come wind rain sound
      花落知多少 Flower fall know how many

      The brief annotations I’ve read seem to suppose that the constraint of form led the poet to say know 知 when he meant not know 不知 — and indeed the briefer expression suffices to get the idea across, to paint the picture. Positive, negative, question – the core is the same. But the point may also be to suggest, under another kind of constraint, that in Chang’an one does not, and yet one does, know how many have had to fall.

  2. Tu’s suggestion could be taken in various ways. He might mean, not that the values are more held in China, but that they are specially “rooted in the Chinese experience” in ways that could somehow be brought to America or that American could benefit from learning more about. Or he might mean that the values are more held in China than America, without necessarily being more fully realized in China than America. Or he might even mean that the values are more explicitly honored in Chinese academia than in American academia. And in general he might be comparing the American present (since 2001, since 1980, since 1968…) with some part of the Chinese past. Any of those comparisons would be interesting and important.

    I’ll go through the list of values and try to guess what might be the area, for each, in which Tu’s suggestion might be on strongest ground.


    There are of course many departments of justice: material distributive justice, judicial justice (procedural fairness, adequacy of punishments), social respect for basic human dignity (liberties and democracy), justice in the law of property and contracts, etc.

    I have the impression that American defenders of Confucianism sometimes have held that China goes farther than America in regarding the material well-being of the people as one of the main proper concerns of government. Maybe that’s where Tu’s suggestion about “justice” is on strongest ground.


    I’m guessing compassion is salient in two main ways in the Chinese tradition: first in Mengzi’s psychological theory of one of the cardinal virtues, and second in the idea that the proper model for unequal social and political relations generally is that the higher-ups care for the lower-downs while the lower-downs respect the higher-ups. (That’s Aristotle’s view too.) In this latter point there is some overlap with the point about government caring for the people’s material welfare. Maybe that’s where Tu’s suggestion about “compassion” too is on strongest ground.


    This may be the most interesting item on Tu’s list. Civility has been a prominent topic of American public discussion, or at least public hand-wringing, in recent years; but maybe that discussion has focused mainly on civility in political discussion, shading into political cooperation.

    One thinks of America’s rude tourists and military interventionism. Power doesn’t tend to make one more considerate of others.

    For China, one thinks of the emphasis on the part of li 禮 that is a studied etiquette of deference and yielding, aiming at social harmony. One thinks of the obligation to help others save face. That may be where Tu is on strongest ground.

    The value Tu mentions as needing to be balanced by civility is “legality.” I’m not sure what kind of “civility” that suggests. One might think of Analects 2.3
    (a passage we’ve puzzled over before) and infer that Tu has in mind (as Confucius often does in mentioning li 禮) something to be done especially by rulers.

    But he may be thinking instead of a contrast between a bare rule-based conception of norms of personal interaction, and the combination of rules and the etiquette of deference and yielding.

    My own suspicion is that as regards civility and the etiquette of respect, a main difference between China and America is that different conceptions predominate in the two countries. What respect demands in one place, it may prohibit in the other. The differences may have to do with how much open and vigorous discussion is valued, and the extent to which open disagreement tends to bring fearful consequences. But I hesitate to say anything more, because I really don’t know. I would love to hear what others think.

    By the way: I read recently that while threatening someone with physical harm is illegal in the U.S., it is not in general illegal in China. He Qinglian speculates that China’s government relies so heavily on informal threats of physical harm that it cannot afford to make the practice illegal.


    Well, I don’t know what to say about this. Anyone?

  3. Above I ran out of gas after Civility and just tossed Social Harmony into the title for that section. I’ll try again regarding Social Harmony.


    What is it? I’m not sure exactly. The absence of violent conflict and ill-will? Mutual trust or faith? Mutual benevolence? A willingness of each to stick to her role? A spirit of cooperation?

    The value Tu Weiming mentions as specially needing to be supplemented by social harmony is “the dignity of the individual.” He says elsewhere in the discussion that social harmony requires difference; it is impossible without difference.

    Youzi said in LY 1.12 that we can’t achieve social harmony by simply aiming at harmony, even if we understand what it is. Direct pursuit of harmony won’t work. We have to regulate or limit that pursuit by ritual. Perhaps the point becomes clearer and more obviously true if we replace the term “ritual” with “the rule of law.”

    We might say the US or the West has looked to squeeze the most cooperation or coordination possible out of each drop of the spirit of cooperation, by means that include the free market (property rights), democracy and the rule of law, and guaranteed basic liberties. Suppose we summarize this large point in the slogan “good fences make good neighbors.”

    There’s a gap between that slogan and Plato’s definition of justice as “each performing his own function” – a gap obscured by Allan Bloom’s translation “each minding his own business.” Here valuing “social harmony” may shade into valuing “responsibility.” I wrote in another thread long ago that

    there is an old worry that bourgeois liberalism makes the continuing job of governance and civilization so invisible that people can forget they have to help. For example, businesspeople can think regulation is unnecessary. Michael Kammen quotes from an 1888 speech to the Reform Club of New York by James Russell Lowell: “After our Constitution got fairly into working order, it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the civil war itself but momentarily disturbed. … I admire the splendid complacency of my contrymen, and find something exhilarating and inspiring in it. … this confidence in our luck with the absorption in material interests, generated by unparalleled opportunity, has in some respects made us neglectful of our political duties.” (Kammen, A Machine That Would Go of Itself, p.18)

    Beyond the defense of our own and each other’s dignity or rights, beyond tolerance, social harmony needs us to be concerned about needs that are not perfectly protected by the mechanical devices of the market. Democracy and the rule of law are supposed to help, by giving politicians an incentive to pass social legislation and the like. Democracy and liberties (such as the right of assembly and protection from arbitrary search and seizure) are supposed to help by giving us the incentive and protection we need to work together voluntarily on various social projects, tolerant of our differences. Basic civil rights may be even more important than material security, in rooting the capacity to care actively for others.

    Maybe the point where Tu Weiming is on strongest ground regarding social harmony is in the fact that – recent hand-wringing about political uncooperativeness aside – American public culture doesn’t hold up this value for special direct attention – not to the extent China or at least You Ruo and Hu Jintao have done?

  4. Just reading Bill’s list and thinking more about “social harmony” – because it’s something I’ve shied away from as a nasty political slogan in the past…

    I think one quite common reading of social harmony here in China is avoidance of adversarial mechanisms. There are many kinds of social mechanisms that are explicitly adversarial: obvious examples are courts; market competition; the press in its “watchdog” role; multiparty democracy; public protest; etc. etc. Those are the kinds of things that I see getting criticised here on the grounds of being inharmonious (by real people as well as the state press); and they are the kind of things about which real people ironically comment, “we’re not allowed to do that, it’s inharmonious”.

    Obviously these mechanisms do very useful things in the societies where they are allowed to work, and their replacements here are often criticised for their absolute failures and failures relative to adversarial mechanisms. But I think the relative lack of friction and the lack of a “loser” are seen as positive features (at least by those who profess to like harmony, which is most people) in courts where there is little doubt of the outcome (cf. Japan); the planned economy; a paternalistic press; one party rule; resolution of conflict through back channel negotiation; etc.

  5. Very interesting and helpful, Phil! I’m sorry to have taken so long to respond. I’m sorrier that I can’t find anything to oppose in what you say.

    Following Halévy’s famous phrase “the artificial identification of interests” (which until just now I thought was Bentham’s own term), I’d been thinking of these institutions as ways of reducing conflict between the interest of society and the interest of individuals. Individuals want to get rich, stay in office, avoid penal sanction, win arguments, etc. But point taken: these institutions involve overt struggle between parties aiming for incompatible outcomes, and it sounds very plausible that this is what “harmony” (e.g. 和諧) tends to suggest these days in China: avoidance of adversarial mechanisms. I think you mean avoidance of adversarial proceedings, institutionalized or otherwise.

    One might argue that the free market is especially harmonious by that standard: What it mainly does is to replace coercive or other means with voluntary agreements. The main kind of visible or direct transaction in competitive markets is not competition, it is purchase-and-sale: a transaction in which each side freely engages, in pursuit of its own aims; both sides like what happens (though when the system is in early stages there’s lots of haggling). A struggling business is aiming, or is well-advised to aim, mainly, not against its competitors, but for its potential customers. What can we do to attract them better? How can we give them something they want more, at a price they like better?

    But of course that’s not quite how the market for labor feels, especially in hard times. Further, the drive for efficiency ends up promoting large organizations in which pretending to work (as in the old USSR joke) just won’t cut it. In that sense the phrase “command economy” is actually appropriate to a large chunk of the capitalist experience–as it is to feudalism and the like. At least in subsistence agriculture without landlords, the basic conflict is just Man versus Nature.

    Tu Weiming spoke about harmony in one other place in the discussion (though the editors seem to have cut some essential material from one or both of the places marked by ellipses below; so the first idea is incomplete; also the moderator changed the subject as soon as the remark was finished). Here are all the words we get:

    … The identity … which is open rather than closed; which is pluralistic, allowing many other identities to coexist, and also self-reflexive. In other words, harmony is not at all in conflict with difference. A precondition for harmony is difference. And harmony is diametrically opposed to sameness, or uniformity.

    At first glance this “harmony” doesn’t seem to be the avoidance of adversarial proceedings. There’s plenty of potential for adversarial proceedings among people because of sameness: because they “want the same thing” (the position, the dollar, the boy). Harmony doesn’t become irrelevant. Confrontation relaxes in markets when each player finds a niche of difference: that’s where the need for “avoidance of the adversarial” relaxes.

    That point is maybe too cute.

    Anyway it kind of looks like what Tu Weiming means by harmony in today’s quote is simply tolerance of differences. But can that be what he means by ‘harmony’ in the quote I gave earlier? There he says “dignity of the individual [“cannot be a truly universal value”] without social harmony”. It seems true enough that a society’s tolerance is essential to its supporting human dignity; what’s hard is to make out the distinction. But a suggestion that China values tolerance at least as much as the U.S. does is too implausible.

    Another thing Tu could mean is “coordination, division of labor, without adversarial proceedings.” That’s the Youzi picture, I guess; and it fits your proposal, and it fits both quotes.

    But it deflates one’s inclination to cheer for the remark about difference being a precondition of harmony; it makes one wonder why he thought the remark worth making on that stage, and why it made the editors and moderator uncomfortable (if it did). Maybe he simply used ‘harmony’ to refer to slightly different values in the two remarks: tolerance in the difference remark, and avoidance of adversarial proceedings in the list-of-values remark as you say? I hate coming to that kind of conclusion.

    * * *

    I want to think toward an effective answer to the “Ick: conflict, losers!” objection to the most important kinds of adversary process (market competition, fair trials, democracy, vigorous debate). I’d welcome some help, or hindrance.

    Youzi’s picture is about avoiding adversarial proceedings by a traditional division of labor, in which each party has an ascribed status and role. The main salient difference, standing perhaps for all difference, is vertical difference in status, ranging from the very big or high (nobles) to the very small or low (peasants or even animals). The role differences at a sacrificial festival are the community’s way of mutually affirming the status differences in society as a whole. This picture of harmony as the coordination of different roles (without adversary proceedings) would seem to apply fairly well to the division of labor in any modern factory or school in which roles are fairly stable.

    But: there is something like “winners and losers” in Youzi’s picture. There are the great and the small. In one sense the small might not be “losers”: their status might not have been something they ever had a chance to try to change. If they didn’t try, they didn’t fail. But in another sense they are especially “losers”: they may have no reasonable hope of becoming greater.

    The ritual of Youzi’s day was not entirely without adversarial proceedings. In LY3 Confucius mentions competition in archery, and the Mencius says Confucius took part in ritual (?) scuffles over the proceeds of hunting expeditions (5B4). I don’t know how people conceived the purpose of the scuffles, or of archery contests unconcerned with strength; can anyone help on that?

    What other adversarial proceedings do we find in the Confucian tradition, and elsewhere in old Chinese culture? Confucius once had something nice to say about a board game. And there were those civil service exams. What else? Please help an old ignoramus. Surely the question would make an interesting and valuable research project. …

    Overt conflict of the most extreme kinds—personal fights to the death or its brink, or warfare between armies—are salient in the most popular old Chinese literature. Are they the predominant focus of popular classical literature? More so than in the West? I don’t know enough to say.

    Is it fair to say that much of what traditional China regarded as “wisdom” is nearly or precisely wisdom about how to win bodily or military fights? (Or in the case of Yanzi, verbal fights?)

    Of course, a focus on and fascination with fighting is not the same as valuing it.

    Certain kinds of conflict are saliently limited and in that way non-threatening. One such kind is sports (basketball etc), especially sports-on-TV. That’s popular in China, yes? Basketball competition is real enough for the players, though; their livelihoods are at stake. A similar kind is quiz shows and other competitive game shows. I don’t know whether those are popular in China; they might be seen as less hermetically sealed off from danger, because they involve ordinary people, even if the prizes are not life-changing. Well, people seemed to enjoy participating in the contest of Super Girl before it was taken off the air.

    Is it possible that the main point of courteous archery and the scuffling over prey was to display the idea of limited conflict, of limited adversary proceedings?

    In my Youzi paper, trying to present and expand on his view of ritual, I wrote:

    In the visible coordinations of ritual we refresh and observe our shared sense of the attractions of harmony, renewing our confidence in our mutual commitment; and ritual celebrating the ranks sketches a social plan. Outside of grand ceremonies, ritual forms for interactions especially between unequals can accomplish the same on a smaller scale, casting the inequality as a shared adherence to a stable common way rather than a conflict of interest that threatens both parties.

    Well, I say the idea of limited adversarial proceedings can cast the adversity itself as a nonthreatening shared adherence to a stable common way. (Think of the attitude toward discussion and debate that a good philosophy teacher tries to inculcate.) And the absence of mutually displayed and assured limits—the reliance on “resolution of conflict through back channel negotiation; etc.” makes all conflict threatening, preserves the fear of all hell breaking loose; and so heightens the perceived value of the avoidance of adversarial proceedings, in a vicious circle.

    I guess that thought must already be circulating in China.

    A somewhat familiar American image for political harmony is the friendship between Reagan and Tip O’Neill.
    Perhaps it would be helpful in China to focus more on positive images of harmony, consistent with overt adversarial proceedings; rather than to allow the concrete image for “harmony” to be purely negative: the absence of adversarial proceedings.

    • There’s a lot more in that comment than I’m qualified to respond to, Bill, so excuse me if I just pick and choose the bits that I can talk about without getting completely out of my depth.
      Firstly, I did feel as though Tu was being a bit sly in the video. He appropriated the term harmonious, and used it in a way that is different to its mainstream usage. The justification – need difference in order to have harmony – makes sense to me, but does not seem to be the way in which that term is used in average tabloid editorializing in China today. And I think his repeated insistence on pluralism and openness are entirely his own contribution. The very theme of the discussion, the China Dream, seems intrinsically homogenizing, and that’s much more in keeping with the public values that I see supported in the media and the public square.
      Just on the point of competitive sports and game shows, they do seem to be a bit less cutthroat here. The domestic sports leagues are rubbish; in game shows, official censors disallow big cash prizes; in the many pop idol ripoffs, the celebrity judges often seem to get a lot more screen time than the competitors, emphasizing the “learning from masters” aspect rather than the “competing with peers” aspect.

      Not knowing anything about Youzi, I can’t comment except on the comparison with a modern school or factory. I think that’s wrong, because in a factory in the modern west, outside of work everyone has explicit equality before the law, and equal sufferage. In a traditional society there is no such outside; your peasant status is omnipresent. Moreover, it will be passed on to your children.

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